di Jonneke van Wierst
What is behind this Dutch ‘Bed Bath Bread’ discussion? How can it be that the two ruling parties VVD and PvdA almost broke up their coalition government over a European verdict on an aspect of the Dutch asylum policy that concerns only around 1000 people? And why does the political agreement they finally came up with cause so much anger and incomprehension among the opposition parties, the Dutch municipalities, people that deal with rejected asylum seekers and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International?
An important part of the problem lies hidden in the Dutch asylum system and the unwillingness of –especially the right wing parties- to admit that there is any problem: the so called ‘asylum gap’. It also has to do with Dutch myths about their own ‘tolerance’ and ‘righteousness’ that blur the sight of the general public -including part of the intellectual elite- on what is really going on in their country. Like most European countries, The Netherlands has had to deal with ‘streams’ of refugees from other parts of the world, mainly Eastern Europe (former Yugoslavia), Africa and the Middle East during the last decennia. They were –and in fact still are- mostly treated decently by the well-organized welfare state The Netherlands is, compared by many other countries in this world. But as times were a changing, especially during the nineties of the former century, discomfort among the people grew with both the welfare system and the ‘generosity’ in which immigrants –and especially asylum seekers- were said to be just freely given ‘everything the Dutch had toiled for all their lives’. A general idea took hold of the people that ‘Dutch tolerance’ had grown way out of bound and asylum laws had to both get stricter and applied more strictly. And while the laws changed, tolerance towards -especially Muslim- immigrants and –black- asylum seekers grew less –if it ever really existed at all. The extreme bureaucratic society that The Netherlands is and always has been, pulled on all strings, telling people ‘a rule is a rule’ and everybody should stick to the –many, many, many- rules of our society if we didn’t want to end up becoming all victims of our own ‘tolerance’.
And so a strict and ‘closed’, meaning: ‘faultless’, asylum system was designed and implicated. The governing parties called it ‘strict but fair’. The ‘closed system’ that was implicated, implied that all asylum claims were judged ‘fairly’ according to strict rules. And so- after all rules were applied: if the Dutch Immigration Authority (IND) decided one had NO right to asylum, this had to be accepted and people had to leave the country. All clear as daylight. The system became even stricter after 2007, when the Dutch government agreed to a ‘pardon’ for old cases -all people that applied for asylum before April 1st 2001. The Dutch cities had to sign an agreement to no longer help people that were rejected by giving them food and shelter and so ‘allowing them to linger on’ while they had no right to be here. No longer welfare organisation that were sponsored by public money were allowed to help rejected asylum seekers. Employers that hired those people were given big fines. People that were stopped by the police and were found to illegally reside in the country were put in detention in order to be expelled –if needed by force. And all was backed up by a strictly applied Dutch bureaucratic system.
Strict but fair
The government intended to achieve two things: change the Dutch tolerant image to ‘discourage’ future asylum seekers to come to our country. And to make sure somebody would ‘disappear’ after the IND had ‘fairly’ decided that an asylum seeker had no right to stay here by making it practically ‘impossible’ to survive without permission.
At the same time most Dutch people –including it seems many journalists, politicians or members of the general intellectual elite- didn’t even realize the laws (and practice) had changed so much and asylum seekers were indeed treated harshly when rejected. Even now, after many convictions of violations of Human Rights treaties, the Dutch think of their own country only as being mild, fair and (too) tolerant. Populist leaders like Geert Wilders are continuously successful while saying the leftish Dutch are tolerant idiots and asylum seekers in Holland are being spoiled and getting everything for free while we, the ordinary people of this country, have to toil and struggle to get what is really ours. And of course… most immigrants/ asylum seekers are ‘dangerous’ –being Muslim.
Stuck in Holland
The ‘faultless system’ that the Dutch have drawn up has, in the meantime, led to desolate people, strolling the streets of our bigger cities. They are people who did not get asylum and do not disappear, despite the fact that they can and often have been put in prison –some repeatedly- and for many, many months on row. Despite the fact they have no shelter, no food and no chance to get a job anywhere. Despite the fact, that they can barely survive and see no future in our country.
Is there a fault in the system since they don’t just ‘go back’ or ‘disappear’ as they could and should, according to the ‘strict but fair’ Dutch laws? Or is it their fault? The Dutch government claims it’s the latter. But as it turns out there are many reasons why people can’t or don’t want to go back. They may be unable to proof their identity/ nationality but still be who they are. Like they may be unable to proof their life is in danger in their ‘home country’ but still it is. The Dutch system requires proof for everything.
We may be talking of people who were born in Ethiopia from Eritrean parents before Eritrea was a separate state. They fled the –then- war-region when they were only teenagers. They went to a neighbouring county, maybe Sudan or Yemen, and led an illegal life there until their life there became ‘unbearable’ due to (changing) circumstances in those countries. They fled again, to Europe, ending up in Holland without papers. Many people are Somalians who fled Al Shabaab and persevere that their country is unsafe while the Dutch government claims there are ‘safe places also in Somalia’ and so they can and must go back. Some people are simply unable to proof their lives are in danger in their home countries as they are unable to deliver the solid evidence the Dutch immigration authorities ask for. How for instance do you proof your father will kill you in honour revenge after you chose to marry a person against his will? You know he will never deliver a signed statement saying he will kill you if you returned to your country? You don’t want to try to get it either as you don’t want any member of your family to ever find out you fled to Holland. And –by the way- a testimony by friends or family is considered ‘biased’ by the Dutch authority and so is not taken seriously anyway.
These are simple examples of how a ‘faultless system’ can victimize people –even in a ‘fair’ country like Holland.
Since Wilders’ message has been and still is very successful, his party has been stealing away votes of the traditional parties, especially PvdA, CDA and VVD. And so they have felt very hesitant to admit that maybe the asylum system we have implicated is too strict in some ways or indeed violating human rights especially by its immigration detention policy and leaving rejected asylum seekers out on the streets without any rights to shelter or food. The verdict of the European Committee of Social Rights says The Netherlands, by signing the European Social Charter, has agreed to unconditionally provide certain ‘basic human rights’ to all people living within their territory, whether legally or illegally.
Controversy over Council of Europe verdict
And so, at the very moment the cities were all busy implementing facilities to provide for these ‘basic rights’ to shelter, food and sanitary, BBB-facilities for undocumented, the Committee of Ministers, while on the one hand subscribing the ECSR verdict, said they left it up to the governments of the separate states – in this case The Netherlands- how to implement all. VVD quickly decided that this allowed them also to not implement at all. PvdA disagreed and so it took nine days of crisis consultations to draw up a compromise in which they do agree to provide ‘BBB’ but not unconditionally –they must ‘work on returning to their countries’ and for a very limited time-period only. In fact this is exactly what they had been doing before and which has led to groups of destitute people sleeping and starving in the streets. The only difference is, they now allow the five biggest cities to also provide the facility they so far provided at one place only: Ter Apel, near the German border.
During the press conference on the ‘compromise’ on April 22, we heard our prime minister Rutte keep up the myth, saying firmly that ‘we have a faultless asylum system in which people who don’t get asylum can and must return to their country’, not even touching upon the problem of these groups and people wandering the streets, not knowing where to go, caught in the faults of the faultless Dutch asylum system.
Jonneke van Wierst is a dutch journalist and writer. She works for Amnesty International NL on refugees and asylum seekers topics. She is in charge of Amnesty blog about refugees of Amsterdam